Kris Roe (The Ataris) on song writing, sincerity and staying power

Kris Roe is The Ataris. That’s not a schmaltzy fan-boy comment, it’s the truth. Ever since he began writing songs on his four-track and drum machine in his bedroom in 1995, he has written and recorded almost every part of every Ataris album. The line-ups that punk rock fans came to know and love were merely touring personnel. Everything else was Kris.

Which proves only one thing. His appetite for writing and performing music is insatiable. The Ataris back catalogue now spans over 4 full length albums with a smattering of EPs and live albums included. The only common element in all of them is Kris.

In recent reminiscence about The Ataris’ gig here in Adelaide going back to 2001, my friends and I agreed that it remained one of our favourite punk shows of all time. For a flailing young punk rock fan it was solidarity amidst uncertainty. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but for the two hours we watched The Ataris slay songs from Blue Skies, Broken Hearts…Next 12 Exits and End Is Forever, it didn’t matter.

Thankfully, Kris remembers that show fondly also, “I remember that show man, at the Uni Bar,” he says wistfully, “You feed off a crowd and Adelaide is usually a really good crowd. The smaller shows are often the better ones because you have that intimacy and you feel like you’re playing to a group of friends, which to me is really important.”

It’s been almost twenty years since Anywhere But Here, The Ataris’ first album, was put together. Since then, The Ataris have ridden the wave from obscurity to fame and back again. And yet, it seems not to have bothered Kris in the slightest. That’s never been the meaning of this endeavour for him.To me, my heart has always been a wandering heart. It always feels fulfilled when I’m able to go out and explore and see new places,” he states, before adding, “the bonus of that is to be able to play shows in all these places and to hear people sing along to our songs. That to me is the greatest honour. To still be able to do that at 39 is amazing.”

In October 1998 The Ataris went out on a cross country US tour playing material from an EP called Look Forward To Failure that they had released on Fat Wreck Chords. Fat Mike, founder of Fat Wreck and bassist for punk godfathers NOFX, decided to put the track “San Dimas High School Football Rules” on a sampler that was being sent out with all Fat Wreck mail orders. On the east coast dates of that tour, five to ten people attended The Ataris’ shows. But by the time they’d reached the west coast, it appears the sampler had worked its magic. “We were out on tour and that was October of ’98 and I noticed on the east coast there were maybe 5 or 10 people coming to the shows. And then San Dimas gained traction via that sampler and by the time we got to the west coast there were 100-200 people at the shows. The organic build-up from word of mouth was what made Blue Skies such a success in ’99.”

“Blue Skies”, as it became affectionately known, was released on Kung Fu Records and produced by Joey Cape of Lagwagon. Success is always a relative term, and whilst the crowds grew, The Ataris continued to be a punk rock band. Their notoriety remained limited to the conclave of dedicated punk disciples.

Following the release of 2001’s End Is Forever, once again produced by Cape, the band entered a period of significant change. What resulted was 2003’s So Long, Astoria, which was released on Columbia. Their first major label effort, it began blurring the lines between punk and rock. It also enjoyed all the trimmings that come with major label releases. “So Long Astoria was our first album with a major label and brought with it a whole new fan base. The first single, “In This Diary”, helped expose this band to a whole new audience. Then, of course “Boys Of Summer” opened us up to the world of radio. That wasn’t something I really cared for but I can’t deny that a whole lot of people learnt about a whole new kind of music because of it.”

Kris describes the Blue Skies and Astoria albums as the fans’ two major entry points into their music. Which is why their 2016 Australian tour will be dedicated to music from those two albums. “Everyone has their gateway drug into music. For me it was an MTV show in the 90s called 120 Minutes. They played alternative and indie rock videos. When I was a kid I listened to Metallica and they would wear Misfits shirts which led me to listen to them. So everybody comes to music differently, but to me those two albums were the way most of our fans discovered us. So we try and play the songs that the fans identify with.”

“There are a handful I can’t come at any more though,” he adds as a disclaimer. “If I said I liked every song I ever wrote, I’d either be lying or a complete douchebag.”

Touché. A douchebag Mr Roe most certainly is not. That is evident in his sometimes brashly honest song writing. The first time I ever heard “1*15*96” from Blue Skies I was hooked. I still listen to that song at least twice a week and have done for 15 years now. Though I never knew what it was about, until now. “I had a kid when I was really young,” Kris explains, “and I don’t really see her anymore because my ex and I are estranged and we don’t talk. But that song was about the beauty and also scariness of seeing your daughter being born. How it’s one of the greatest moments of your life but it’s also a complete whirlwind. Those lyrics, ‘let me start this from the day we met’ is me talking to my daughter.”

All of The Ataris’ songs find their genesis in the raw emotion of Kris Roe’s life. To my mind there has never been a more profoundly introspective song writer. “I tend to play the (songs) that are true to me and mean something to me. I think it’s important to have a narrative running through my songs. One that tells a story about my life and what has been important to me.”

And after twenty years of exposing the darkest and deepest parts of his soul to his fans, it would seem they’re still the reason he continues to do it. “I never thought this is where I’d end up as a musician. Song writing and performing was always just therapy to me you know? I never thought past that to begin with. But now I love what I do and I never take it for granted. I like to think I’ve remained humble and down to earth. Every night at our shows in the states, I still load the van and drive it myself. I stick around and talk to fans every show because to me that’s what it’s all about. If someone cares enough to buy our music, they deserve my time and at least a thank you you know?”

Tickets to The Ataris So Long, Blue Skies Australian Tour 2016 are available via Destroy All Lines.